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THE KEYS TO EFFECTIVE SPONSORS

Updated: Jun 12

by Jamie Flinchbaugh

Whether a major enterprise-wide transformation or a small improvement project, the role of a sponsor can either help enable success or entirely squash your chances. Getting sponsorship right is not the most important ingredient for success, but it is probably the most misunderstood. Some sponsorship is formalized, with a name in a box on a template, and many other times it is implied, taking some ownership over the work without being directly involved.


Here we explore why it is important, what to do, what not to do, selecting the right sponsor, and how the sponsor interfaces with other critical roles.


Why is it so important?

First, why is it important to write about this topic? The big reasons are that there is very little written about it yet it is frequently a complaint from those trying to get stuff done. A starting assumption is held that as sponsors are often fairly senior leaders, that they must have the experience and perspective to know how to be a good sponsor. The evidence discredits this assumption.


An effective sponsor has many benefits, but perhaps the most important is to avoid rework. There are few wastes as insidious as having to redo the work because of missing information such as criteria or boundary conditions (more on those later). An effective sponsor avoids this waste ensuring that the team is working inside the right box so their efforts are not wasted or second-guessed.


The positive side of this is that effective sponsorship provides the right empowerment for a team, ensuring that they have what they need to be successful in the pursuit of their goals. An empowered team with a clear set of objectives and well-understood boundary conditions can accomplish amazing results.


The sponsor should also be able to provide insight, perspective, or context unavailable but useful to the team. If a team fails to anticipate, or thinks too narrowly or short-term about the problem, these are failings of the sponsor to provide the needed context.


How does the sponsor engage with other roles?

I’m including this early in the article because the interactions shape the role. Most of the activity performed by a sponsor is in the interactions. Having clearly defined roles within complex and overlapping work is critical.


Team Leader: The Team Leader is the one ultimately accountable for the work and performance of the team. This isn’t often a formal role name, instead implied as the Manager or Director responsible for the core work. Part of the sponsor’s role is to hold them accountable, but also to give them what is needed. Most difficult topics a sponsor will engage with should be done directly with the Team Leader, allowing that leader to engage with and drive the team. When needed, the Sponsor grants the Team Leader the authority they need to perform the role.


Facilitator: A facilitator is not always needed, and should be used sparingly. Most work should be achievable with an implied Team Leader and the Team. But when called for, a Facilitator can help guide the process and smooth over the friction points, especially when either the team or the work is very complex. When there is no clearly defined Team Leader, the Facilitator ends up as de facto Team Leader. This is usually a mistake, and will only appear not to be when the Facilitator has superior talent to overcome the gap. The Sponsor and Facilitator should have relatively little interaction, relying instead on the Team Leader, but as the Facilitator will have a different lens to spot problems and barriers, a direct line to the Sponsor can be useful. This is especially true when the Team Leader is being stretched or tested in their role.


Project Manager: A Project Manager also shouldn’t be required most of the time. Their role overlaps quite a bit with both the Team Leader and Facilitator, and so it is fairly rare that you would need all three. When you have all three, the Project Manager should have little to no interaction with the Sponsor, but if there is no Facilitator, they may again have insights around progress or barriers that can be fed directly to the Sponsor.


Team Members: If the Sponsor and Team Leader are well aligned, the Team Members require little interaction with the Sponsor other than key moments along the work. The primary interaction should be around encouragement, and providing confidence to the team that they are, in fact, empowered to go forward. Micromanagement of the team itself should be avoided, as this turns the Sponsor into the Team Leader.


Stakeholders: This is the often unsung value add where a good Sponsor makes a big difference. This work happens outside of the room (whether literal or figurative), and is often invisible to the team itself. First, the Stakeholders such as internal customers or suppliers, or simply those who care a lot about the outcome of the work, must be kept informed. While the Team Leader may take on much of this work, the Sponsor can ensure that it is getting through and understood. Second, they must work to ensure that alignment is built, but also maintained. Interests and perspectives can shift, and while that doesn’t mean the work shouldn’t shift with it, the Sponsor must maintain ownership over that alignment. Finally, ensuring that Stakeholders don’t interfere directly with the team imposing their own interests, ideas, or constraints is essential.


"Sponsorship is not a role we get to do however we want just because we’re in charge."

The role of the Sponsor can often be compared to a sporting Referee, whereas the best outcome is to remain invisible, and to express good judgment about when and how to intervene.


Selecting the right sponsor

Most teams do not get to select their own Sponsor, so this guidance affects both Sponsors trying to decide as well as to teams trying to find the right one.


First, don’t just assume that the “boss” is automatically the sponsor. This may be empirically the most frequent answer, but fails as an automatic heuristic. The failure modes happen later, and so it is worth taking a few moments up front to be thoughtful about this important decision. What follows are other factors to consider.


Who can provide clarifying direction and input? Ultimately helping shape the work is massively important. Those clarifying insights can be based on a previous role they had even at another company. For example, if you’re going through a major ERP transformation, it affects everyone. But perhaps a divisional President had been through it 18 months earlier at their previous company, and would be really useful to this project.


Who will really care if you are successful? Or, who is the customer of the work, or the change? Much work that is cross-functional has people who are making the improvement, and others who benefit. If you are transforming your internal financial reporting tools, it is people in P&L decision roles who may benefit the most, and therefore may make a really useful sponsor. If you’re transforming your talent development process, a senior leader that has a great need to upskill their team may have a great interest. If these individuals aren’t the Sponsor, then they are at least a Stakeholder. But sometimes that leaves the Sponsor more as an arbiter rather than guide. It can be very clarifying to get direct engagement with the end user of the work.


Another mistake is going as high as possible in the organization for a sponsor. Every outside firm trying to do transforming work in the organization asks for an audience with the CEO. Certainly a CEO as sponsor can remove barriers and make decisions, but you are also competing for attention span with everything else on their plate. So, attention share is the first thing to consider. If the Sponsor can go a week without the work even crossing their mind, they are not likely the right person.


Instead, go as low as possible. “As possible” is the key phrase here. You want them closer to the work so that they at least have familiarity with the work, the constraints within the work, what good looks like, etc. However, they also have to have decision rights for the scope involved. Whether those decision rights are formalized, or informally achieved through power, influence, or credibility, you do need your sponsor to be able to make a decision when one is required.


How can sponsors fail?

While some failure modes are implied in the guidance already provided, here we highlight common failures.


First, it is easy to assume that if one sponsor is good, having many co-sponsors will be better. However most of the time this is false. Every co-sponsor can be in favor of success, but none of them are accountable for failure. When things go awry, you need to know who to go to and not find everyone avoiding eye contact.


Second, don’t be unavailable. Remember that the team’s work depends on getting what they need from the Sponsor in a timely manner. The Team Leader shouldn’t need to get on your busy calendar “in a couple weeks” to get answers. If they call, you answer.


Third, sponsors don’t generate the solution. That’s the job of the team. Yes, we all love it when our idea is chosen. That is ego over success. If you really have a clear picture of the solution however, don’t delegate it to a team. I can’t tell you how many sponsors and coaches of work that I meet that are frustrated that a team isn’t developing the solution that they already knew they wanted. They never should have delegated a problem that they really wanted to own themselves.


Fourth, don’t manage the work. You are not the Team Leader, the Facilitator, or the Project Manager. If you want to be the Team Leader, then be Team Leader and not the Sponsor.


And fifth, do not misread your implied power. Far too often, when someone is named a Sponsor, they assume this gives them (in the voice of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine) “absolute power.” This often shows up by not staying engaged with and building alignment with other Stakeholders.


How does the Sponsor perform their role?

Beyond what we’ve already defined what a sponsor does, and shouldn’t do, we can describe the role based on two perspectives: setting up the journey, and helping the team avoid getting lost along the journey. The first part is done in advance and is fundamentally the most important part of the sponsor’s role. There are four primary elements of defining the journey.


First, you have to help define the problem well. This is often pushed through too quickly, but as John Dewey pointed out, “a problem well put is half solved.” If you are going to spin up a team to do real, collaborative, and hard work, it seems the least we can do for them is to ensure they are working on a problem clearly defined and aligned with all the stakeholders.


Part of defining the problem, in this case, is also establishing the priority or importance of the problem. Is this the kind of problem where we should all clear our schedules, or just work on it when we can find the time? Allowing teams to struggle to place this relative to their other work is a disservice, especially when those on the team have different opinions about the problem’s priority.


Second, you must define the end of the journey. What are the conditions of satisfaction? What must be true for the project to be considered successful? This can include both conditions around the solution and around the journey. For example, success may involve bringing another team along for the ride would be a process condition. Outcome conditions may include how much could be spent or when the project must be completed by. One of the most frequent failures of sponsors is when they aren’t happy at the end of the project, mostly because they insert new conditions not previously revealed.


Third, defining the boundary conditions, or guard rails, for the journey is also often missed. This includes defining what should be avoided, and what should be included. Making clear what must be avoided helps prevent reworking solutions. Examples include not changing the software system, or not spending more than $X, or not creating a new SKU to solve the problem. This requires a little anticipation and intuition about where the team may tread where they shouldn’t.


Ensuring aspects that should be in-scope requires even more anticipation and intuition. Almost all teams put up false walls around what they can do. These are often based on past experiences and being told no. I remember an organization that firmly believed that one core dimension of product development was not to be touched by the direction of the owners. We checked, and that assumption was plain false. We jumped in and simplified product complexity by a massive measure. People do not want to find out where the boundaries are by accidentally exceeding them, so the safe thing to do is put themselves into a box that’s smaller than intended. As a sponsor, if you can open up that box even a little, you are doing the team a great service.


The fourth role before getting underway is selecting the right team. There are a lot of factors to consider, but no formulas. Keep the team as small as possible, but no smaller. Small teams can function better, but you must include the right people based on the roles they represent, the knowledge or experience they bring, the skills they contribute, and team chemistry. You should also consider the learning opportunity that is provided to others, whether you are exposing them to the nature of the work, or the context of the project itself.


The sponsor may not actually do the work to assemble the team, but may delegate most of that to the Team Leader. However, this should not be fully delegated, and at least reviewed and adjusted as needed by the Sponsor. This helps avoid blind spots and misses that makes the work harder down the road.


During the work, the Sponsor also performs two primary roles. First, they must be available to the team to remove roadblocks to maintain momentum. These roadblocks can be as small as not having an adequate space to work in, or as major as not having access to a key part of the organization needed for collaboration.


The second role is to recognize when a change needs to be made and to intervene. This can be an adjustment to any of the factors listed above, such as changing a boundary condition or changing the team members. The Sponsor must be listening with the intention of not interfering, until avoiding interference is the greater risk.


Sponsorship is not a role we get to do however we want just because we’re in charge. The inconsistency that this mindset can introduce will lead to confusion, frustration, and bad outcomes. Resources, especially those with talent and commitment, are hard enough to come by. They deserve the very best efforts from those sponsoring their work.


 

Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, Consultant, and Board Member with 30 years of learning-oriented experience spanning a range of roles across exceptionally diverse industries and functions. Has held several leadership positions and over the last 20+ years, Jamie has helped build nearly 20 companies as a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor

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